The government has shut down at least eight “copycat” military recruiting websites run by companies accused of using deceptive practices to entice potential recruits into providing their personal information, then selling the information to post-secondary schools.
According to the Federal Trade Commission’s complaint, the companies’ websites appeared to be official recruiting sites — such as army.com, armyenlist.com, airforceenlist.com, marinesenlist.com, navyenlist.com, coastguardentlist.com, airguardenlist.com, nationalguardenlist.com and armyreserves.com. The companies agreed to give up the domain names and stop the alleged deceptive practices.
“Those who are considering a military career deserve to have confidence that the recruitment site is legitimate and their personal information will not be misused,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons, in an announcement about the FTC action. “The FTC will take action against any party in the lead generation ecosystem — from sellers to purchasers — that fails to comply with the law.”
A statement from one of the companies, Sun Key, says it has worked for years with more than 7,500 recruiters across all the services, providing leads on potential recruits. In addition, the company previously provided leads as a subcontractor to advertising agencies working on DoD recruiting contracts, until budget constraints ended the subcontracts, Sun Key said.
The FTC said the websites allegedly prompted consumers to submit their personal information to learn more about the armed forces, and promised to use the information only for military recruitment purposes and not to share it with anyone else.
However, the FTC alleged, the companies sold the information to post-secondary schools for marketing leads, for $15 to $40 per lead. According to the FTC, tens of thousands of consumers visited these websites each month.
The companies continued their deception “during phone calls to consumers who submit information on their websites by holding themselves out as military representatives,” according to the complaint, and gave the false impression that the military endorsed the schools.
The complaint, filed Thursday along with the proposed settlements in federal court in the Northern District of Alabama, names defendants Alabama-based companies Sunkey Publishing, Inc.; Sun Key Publishing, LLC; Fanmail.com, LLC; and WhereData, LLC. Sun Key company officers Christopher Upp and Mark Van Dyke and Fanmail.com officials Lon Brolliar and Andrew Dorman are also named as defendants.
The settlements noted the companies and the officials named as defendants neither admitted nor denied the FTC’s allegations.
In a statement from Sun Key, provided by its attorney Jonathan Direnfeld, officials said, “Sun Key’s business was focused on assisting individuals who are interested in joining the military.”
Before they shut down their websites to comply with the settlement agreement with the FTC, Sun Key was working with more than 7,500 military recruiters, according to Sun Key’s statement.
“The U.S. Armed Forces recruiters informed Sun Key that Sun Key’s military recruitment network is a valuable tool in helping them identify potential recruits, and the leads provided by Sun Key are some of the best performing leads in generating appointments with potential recruits," the statement said.
As for the telemarketing complaints, Sun Key says it followed up by telephone with the consumers who submitted inquiries to confirm their contact information before submitting it to one of the 7,500 military recruiters. Since January 2014, about 73 percent of inquiries submitted to Sun Key were validated and submitted to military recruiters.
Before 2010, Sun Key provided online recruiting services to three advertising agencies through their contracts with the Army and the National Guard. They submitted information to the agencies on a nightly basis, and Sun Key was paid on a per-lead basis. But the advertising agencies decided not to renew Sun Key’s contracts because of DoD budget constraints, according to the Sun Key statement.
To sustain the free service to military recruiters, Sun Key had to find a replacement revenue source. So they expanded call center operations to provide potential recruits with the option of hearing about potential military-friendly schools.
If the consumer declined to hear about educational opportunities, the call center representative would end the call and send information only to military recruiters, and it wouldn’t be shared with any other third party, officials said. If the consumer was interested in particular schools, they would provide consent for Sun Key to provide their contact information to the specific schools, according to Sun Key.
Under the settlement agreements, the companies are required to turn over the websites allegedly used to deceive consumers. That partially satisfies civil penalties of $11.1 million against Sun Key and $1 million against Fanmail.com. Other than that partial satisfaction of the payment, the judgments are suspended because of the defendants’ inability to pay.
The proposed settlements also ban the companies from misrepresenting a military affiliation, or misrepresenting the endorsement of particular schools by the military, or misrepresenting the extent to which they share consumers’ personal information. They must disclose they are not official recruiting websites of the military, and must get permission to disclose consumer information collected to be used with lead generation for any purpose.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.